April 15, 2013 at 1:38 pm

Richard D. Friedman

Tiger Woods should have been disqualified, but justice still was done

After Tiger Woods’ third shot on the 15th hole Friday at the Masters hit the flagstick and rolled into the water, Rule 26-1 imposed a one-stroke penalty. He should have played his next shot from “as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played.” (Getty Images)

If the rules of golf had been applied properly, Tiger Woods would have been disqualified from the Masters on Saturday. And the question does not even appear particularly close.

After Woods' third shot on the 15th hole Friday hit the flagstick and rolled into the water, Rule 26-1 imposed a one-stroke penalty. He should have played his next shot from "as nearly as possible at the spot from which the original ball was last played."

But instead, to minimize the chance of repeating such a disastrous result, he dropped his ball several feet farther back, along the same line from the hole. In doing so, Woods was apparently thinking of another provision of Rule 26-1, which allows the player to spot the point where the ball crossed the water hazard, draw a line to the hole, then place the ball along that line in back of the hazard, however far back he wants.

Even after a viewer phoned in to call attention to the problem, the rules committee did not spot the violation. And Woods himself did not realize he violated the rule; in an interview after signing his scorecard, he explained the advantage he thought he gained by dropping the ball where he did.

That made the committee look again, and it properly imposed a two-stroke penalty on the hole.

But that meant Woods signed a scorecard giving himself too low a score on the 15th hole, and under Rule 6-6d, he should be disqualified.

Now, it is true Rule 33-7 gives the committee the power to waive the disqualification penalty "in exceptional circumstances," but that rule should not have helped Woods.

Decision 33-7/4.5, though liberalized in 2011, makes this point very clear. It poses just this situation: After a player returns his scorecard, it turns out that he took too low a score on one hole because of "his failure to include a penalty stroke(s) which he did not know he had incurred."

Upon discovering the error, before completion of the competition, would the committee be justified in waiving or modifying the disqualification penalty?

"Generally," the decision says, "the disqualification prescribed by Rule 6-6d must not be waived or modified." But waiver is permissible "if the Committee is satisfied that the competitor could not reasonably have known or discovered the facts resulting in his breach of the Rules."

Conscientiously applied, that last provision cannot help Woods. It is only reasonable ignorance of "the facts resulting in his breach of the Rules" that can excuse disqualification.

Illustrations provided by the decision are situations in which, after the player submits his scorecard, high-quality video shows he double-hit a ball on a short chip shot, or that he "unknowingly touched a few grains of sand with his club on the top of his backswing" on a bunker wall, or that in the process of removing a marker on the green he accidentally moved the ball so slightly he could not reasonably have noticed.

None of these illustrations describe Woods' case.

Woods knew full well "the facts resulting in his breach of the Rules" — that he had hit his shot several feet back from the original spot. He was just confused about the rules — and the decision is explicit that waiver is not appropriate if failure to include the penalty stroke "was a result of . . . ignorance of the Rules."

So, really without any ambiguity, the rules called for disqualification. But, even taking into account that the rules of golf are supposed to be self-enforced, such a result seems dubious.

Woods was not trying to gain an unfair advantage, he could not have done so without it being noticed, and the penalty he ultimately received was far greater than any advantage he could have hoped for. Given that a viewer noticed the problem while Woods was still playing, the committee could have rectified it then, as it did eventually. Whether for a journeyman or for the No. 1 player in the world, disqualification from a major championship in these circumstances would have been too harsh a remedy.

In short, the committee appears to have applied too loosely an overly restrictive rule, thus compensating for its own earlier failure to act — and so justice was done.

Richard D. Friedman is the Alene and Allan F. Smith Professor at the University of Michigan Law School. He is an expert in the field of evidence, and he also teaches a course that examines sports as legal systems.